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What Did Christians Say About Accountability in Ancient Times?

Last Updated: January 17, 2023

Keith Rose
Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree and BA in Sacred Music. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. He has also served as a Bible teacher, pastoral assistant, and music director at his local church. He's now the editor of the Covenant Eyes blog and the author of Allied: Fighting Porn With Accountability, Faith, and Friends. He lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina with his wife Ruby and daughter Winslow.

I take new ideas with a grain of salt⁠—especially when it comes to my faith and Christian living. So when I read about “accountability,” “accountability partners,” and “accountability groups,” my first instinct is to suspect it’s a fad that will soon go out of style.

To my surprise, I’ve found the opposite—the idea of accountability goes back a long, long time. The deepest thinkers from ancient history saw accountability as an essential part of authentic Christian relationships.

We’ve written before about biblical accountability. But here are 7 quotes from Christians through the centuries that demonstrate cutting-edge thinking on the importance of accountability!

We Need Accountability to Mentors

We hear a lot about “mentors” in self-help circles nowadays. In 12-step groups, having a “sponsor” is considered essential for recovery. But this idea goes WAY BACK. Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John and a second-century leader of the church. He wrote:

“In like manner, let the young men also be blameless in all things, being especially careful to preserve purity, and keeping themselves in, as with a bridle, from every kind of evil. For it is well that they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since every lust wars against the spirit… Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.”1

We see the key point in the last line, “being subject to the presbyters (elders) and deacons.” The language of “being subject” sounds strange and even harsh to our 21st-century ears. But the principle is really about mentorship.

In other words, young men are especially tempted by lust, and it’s important they find spiritually mature men in their lives to mentor and disciple them. This holds true for all Christians though, not just young men! Whether young or old, men or women, we need mentors, especially when we’re struggling with a persistent temptation like pornography.

We Need Accountability to Friends

Mentors are great, but accountability goes beyond mentoring and discipleship. We need accountability to experience true friendship. John Chrysostom was the greatest preacher of his generation, and his insights into Scripture remain valuable over a thousand years after his death. In a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:5-7, he said:

“Nothing is so injurious to mankind as to undervalue friendship and not to cultivate it with the greatest care; as nothing, on the other hand, is so beneficial, as to pursue it to the utmost of our power.”2

Medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas expanded the importance of true friendship:

“In sharing one’s inner life with another one comes to live not just one life but two. The inner life of another that is known to God alone becomes to a much less degree open to us through friendship. It partially fills the desire of our incomplete, lonely hearts for completeness in another.”3

So, Christians need friends, and true friendship means sharing your inner life. We gain a deeper understanding of who we are as fellow image-bearers through these relationships. That’s a big part of what accountability is all about.

We Need Accountability to Hold Our Course

From the earliest times, Christian thinkers recognized that the people around us influence the way we live. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). In his Confessions, the great theologian Augustine of Hippo bemoaned his lack of accountability as a young person.

“Nearly nine years passed in which I wallowed in the mud of that deep pit and in the darkness of falsehood, striving often to rise, but being all the more heavily dashed down.”4

As a mature Christian, Augustine cultivated many close relationships with other believers who encouraged and challenged him in his faith. One of the people who often challenged Augustine was Jerome of Stridon.

Jerome often disagreed with Augustine, and their exchanges sometimes became prickly. But Jerome understood the value of sharpening influences. He once wrote to a young monk encouraging him to remain in fellowship with other believers rather than pursuing spirituality in isolation:

“For my part I should like you to have the society of holy men so as not to be thrown altogether on your resources. For if you set out upon a road that is new to you without a guide, you are sure to turn aside immediately either to the right or to the left, to lay yourself open to the assaults of error, to go too far or else not far enough, to weary yourself with running too fast or to loiter by the way and to fall asleep.”5

We Need Accountability to Find Healing From Shame

Thomas Manton was a renowned English preacher in the 17th century, and he reflected deeply on accountability in his sermon on James 5:16:

“It is but folly to hide our sores till they be incurable. When we have disburdened ourselves into the bosom of a godly friend, conscience findeth a great deal of ease.”6

The metaphor Manton uses shows the power of accountability to heal. When we hide our sin, it festers like a nasty infection. Confession to a Christian brother or sister relieves the pain of the hidden sin and helps point us to healing in Christ.

We Need Probing Accountability Questions

So, we’ve seen the idea of accountability goes way back. But none of this tells us much about the nuts and bolts of what accountability looks like in relationships. Fortunately, we have John Wesley to point the way!

In his “holy clubs,” Wesley developed a series of powerful accountability questions to help keep himself and his friends on track spiritually. The following isn’t a direct quote, but a summary of Wesley’s accountability questions that you can utilize yourself with an ally or group of Christian friends.

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression
    that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give it time to speak to me every day?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience
    is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God that I am not like other people, especially as
    the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold
    resentment toward, or disregard? If so, what am I doing about
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?7

From these old Christian thinkers, we find timeless truths of accountability that are relevant for today! If you’re interested in learning more accountability principles from the past, check out Luke Gilkerson’s post “How a Puritan Might Run an Accountability Group!”

1Polycarp, Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, accessed July 11, 2022 at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0136.htm.

2John Chrysostom, “Homily II,” in The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on Philippians, https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf113/npnf113.v.iii.iii.html?queryID=8739352&resultID=167743.

3Thomas Aquinas, “Friendship According to St. Thomas Aquinas,” accessed July 11, 2022 at http://www.catholicapologetics.info/morality/general/friends.htm.

4Saint Augustine, Confessions, accessed July 11, 2022 at https://ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions/confessions.vi.html?queryID=8739821&resultID=56462.

5Saint Jerome, “Letter CXXV. To Rusticus,” in The Letters of St. Jerome, accessed July 11, 2022 at https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206/npnf206.v.CXXV.html?queryID=8753059&resultID=170731.

6Thomas Manton, A Practical Commentary, or an Exposition With Notes on the Epistle of James, accessed July 11, 2022 at https://ccel.org/ccel/manton/manton04/manton04.viii.html.

7Discipleship Ministries UMC, “Everyday Disciples: John Wesley’s 22 Questions,” October 25, 2016. Accessed July 11, 2022 at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/everyday-disciples-john-wesleys-22-questions.

  • Comments on: What Did Christians Say About Accountability in Ancient Times?
    1. Esequiel

      Brother this is a great article, however, I must say you chose your words carefully because at first glance I thought you were going to list biblical references rather than historical ones. Example: the beginning of the article read “in his sermon on” on 1Tim. 1:5-7; read like the words below it were derived from the text. But really cool nonetheless.

      • Keith Rose

        Thanks for your comment!


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